June 16: Springing into Action

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Our tow route to Blue Springs State Park. Avoid driving I-4 through Orlando while pulling at all costs!
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Driving in Florida, in the summer.

Our five-month trip begins here. Our 250-mile towing route from Chokoloskee Island to Blue Spring State Park began and ended without drama. Well, maybe a little drama as we drove I-4 through Orlando which seems to be entirely under construction. Miles of concrete barriers provided barely enough width to drive through and made me a bit guilty that Vivian did all the driving that day. And right on cue, those Florida summer storms popped up at random with a vengeance. As navigator for the day, I kept one eye on the radar and the other on the map. Fortunate for us, we skirted the storms safely and once we arrived at Blue Spring, we had only a steady sprinkle from the remains of a storm that had blown through earlier.

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Blue Spring offers refuge to manatee during the winter months. In the summer, they head north and are nowhere to be seen here.

Depending on what you read, it’s either Blue Springs or Blue Spring that is one of Florida’s most popular state parks. Do NOT confuse it with Blue Springs State Park in southern Alabama. Alabama’s park is a couple of cement ponds that are fed natural spring water at a rate of 3600 gallons per minute. That’s probably adequate to flush out a child’s wee; but call it what it is, a swimming pool.

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Blue Spring is popular with scuba divers who can dive in and explore the underwater cave.

Florida’s Blue Spring on the other hand is a first magnitude spring, one of 33 found in Florida. It flushes over 70,000 gallons of water into the St Johns River each minute. Blue Spring is one of 700 springs in Florida where more are still being discovered. When it comes to natural springs, Florida is king. Not only that, Florida’s Blue Spring has manatees and lots of them. Unfortunately, we didn’t see them because like us, manatees prefer warm water and migrate north in the summer.

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One of the access points to the springs. The spring is a very short distance from the campground.

We parked two nights in Blue Spring State Park. The state park experience was as expected; crowded, narrow tree-lined roads and cramped campsites. When we arrived on a Sunday afternoon, there was a nice big sign at the entrance that read “No entry, park full” and a roadblock in front of three cars lined up in front of us. I walked to the ranger’s station to let them know we had reservations. He said, “Oh, just move the roadblock and come in and be sure to close it after you get through it”. No problem – got it boss. Except he overlooked the inevitable which was that every vehicle behind our RV would follow us in, lock step. Which left me standing next to the roadblock watching cars go by and wondering if I was going to be fired on my first day of the job. Finally, I took advantage of a car with its driver’s side window down and shouted “Tag, you’re it”. Back at the ranger’s station, another kindly ranger laughed as he told me I should have just closed that roadblock immediately after clearing it. I guess my junior ranger days are numbered.

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The 1/3-mile boardwalk follows along the spring and winds through a lush oak and palm forests.

After backing in and setting up in a gentle rain, we walked to the springs where a hoard of children played while their parents grasped the final few hours of a precious weekend before heading home. This is a popular location for locals to enjoy cool water. The park offers a couple access points to the water and some short distance boardwalks through lush forests. It also provides scuba divers access to the underwater caves. If all you do is look at the springs from land, it’s worth being there because it is one of Florida’s gems.

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An osprey finds a perfect nesting location in downtown Sanford.

During our short stay, we were glad to have seen the springs, but we mostly looked forward to sightseeing at a couple little towns in the area, DeLand and Sanford. We wanted to visit Sanford because a friend had lived there when he was a yacht broker. He said good things about the river town he once called home, so we took that as a sign to visit Sanford because he rarely says anything good about any place in Florida.

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The founder of DeLand, Henry DeLand wanted to make the town the “Athens of Florida”. So what did he do? He hired an architect to build an Italian Renaissance theatre. Built in 1921, DeLand’s Athens theatre has survived deterioration, closure and eventual revival. It continues to be a working theatre.

We visited Sanford in the morning and saved DeLand for the afternoon. I honestly don’t remember much about Sanford. I must admit, it was Monday and everything of interest to us was closed, including most of the downtown shops. But we wanted to see the town, so we stepped into the visitor center hoping to get some local intel. Unfortunately, the only person working there was a young man who behaved as if someone had just woke him from a deep sleep, snatched him from his bed and then dropped him in a visitor center without giving him any instructions or information that would provide him the means to do the job expected of the individual sitting behind a “Welcome to Sanford” sign. In short, we got nothing. After leaving the visitor center bewildered, we wandered aimlessly about town. After walking past a closed sign along main street for the umpteenth time, we decided to move on to Deland.

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This is a portion of a very large mural in downtown DeLand. The artist used the faces of actual (past and present) persons to paint onto the bodies. Sense of scale was not keen!
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My favorite mural on the walk included bears and other animals.
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While walking DeLand’s mainstreet, know that you are being watched.

We were so delighted with the charm of DeLand and its many small (and open!) businesses displaying pride flags that we dug into our pockets and had lunch at Dick & Janes. We enjoy exploring locations and bringing our own lunch and water bottles to refill at a drinking fountain, but we had to splurge in charming DeLand! It wasn’t too horribly hot, so we took a nice walk around the city hunting for murals on the historic mural walk. We found most of them, but the city does make you work to find them! The crowning jewel of our visit was the county court house where a collection of art by Jackson Walker could be viewed at will. What a treat that was for us because it was old Florida and its rich history displayed in one oil painting after another.

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One of Jackson Walker’s oil paintings and my favorite within the gallery is of William Bartram, titled “The Flower Hunter”. Bertram was a botanist and Florida explorer. He began his explorations in 1773 and explored much of Florida, including Blue Spring.

That was our entire time at Blue Springs State Park, a nice and easy way to begin our 5-mon trip. With 5 months of traveling and so many different experiences and places ahead of us, I wanted to take in Blue Spring and the surrounding area, but I was itching to move on.

RV and travel issues and concerns

I decided to add a section to each blog that would address issues we were confronted with during our stay at a campground or during the drive there.

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The water pump was easily removed and opened. On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the most difficult of RV maintenance and repairs, this was a 3 (I’d rate it 2 if it wasn’t for the hard to reach screw hole to get it back in place).

Issue 1: We knew going into this that maintenance and repairs were part of the deal and we could only hope that all or at least most of them could be successfully performed by us. On our way to Blue Springs, we took a break and pulled off at a gas station. Our standard routine is to set the plumbing to Dry Camping and then simply turn on the water pump when we go into the RV to use the toilet. This time, the pump did not come on. First time for everything. All connections and settings checked out, so we called the company (Shurflo) that makes the water pump. It’s a water pump, not a deuterium fusion reactor so we figured it could be an easy fix. When we told them what was happening, they suggested it was likely clogged and required a simple cleaning, but if that did not work, they would send a NEW pump. So we took it out, took it apart and cleaned the filter. It worked! Problem solved. Vivian and Connie 1 – RV imps – 0.

Sep 3 Full Circle

The two most engaging powers of a photograph are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.” William Thackeray

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The sun peeks through the fog over the Jordan River Valley.

 

It was like old times, driving down the rutty dirt road through the remote Jordan River Valley looking for a place to pull off and get out to access the river. Back in the day, a back country drive like this was a way for me and friends to seek thrills and mostly stay out of sight of the police who might spot one of us chugging a beer. This morning, I left our RV campground an hour before sun rise as I always do when I am on a photographic mission. Instead of a cooler of beer in the back seat, there lay a tripod and a backpack full of camera equipment.

Photographing the River
The best part of RV traveling, I have all my photography equipment ready to go at any time.

The pristine Jordan River, designated as Michigan’s first natural river, meanders 32 miles through the northwest region of the state. It is where fly fishermen and canoeists work the shallow and rapid waters and where hikers trek for miles along the river’s edge through low lying wetlands and up and down hilly forests. In many areas of the river it is concentrated with fallen trees strewn about randomly, fodder for beaver dams. In the spring, multiple colors of wildflowers sprout from the dead wood while low lying fog hangs eerily over the water for hours. In the winter, ice and snow accumulate allowing only the fastest moving water to penetrate the whiteness. It’s so wild here and at first glance, appears messy and chaotic. In many ways, it reminds me of the Florida Everglades where I spend most of my time photographing.

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Fog lays heavy over the water, creating a mystical scene.

The entrance to the Jordan River watershed area is a short drive from where I was born and bred. Geographically speaking, my home town, Gaylord is about 50 miles south of the Mackinaw Bridge that connects the upper and lower peninsulas. Ask any Michigander from the lower peninsula where they are from, and they will most assuredly point somewhere on the palm side of their hand and say, “Right about here”. Anatomically speaking, Gaylord is located on the distal interphalangeal joint of the middle finger. Or more appropriately, in the middle of the “tip of the mitt”. The small town of 3600 is surrounded by a vast wilderness. For many of us growing up in northern Michigan, driving for miles on dirt roads through dense forests was a favorite pastime if you were fortunate enough to have a car. The vastness of the wilderness meant freedom.

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A trail map of the Jordan River Valley area.
Dirt Road
I love to drive down these roads.

When I left Gaylord 35 years ago, it was mostly to start a new life in a city rather than to escape a rural life. I had goals, and Gaylord was simply not in the plan. I never disliked Gaylord, in fact, I rather enjoyed it. The wild remoteness of northern Michigan was a bonus to me, but when the time came to leave, I never looked back as the city sirens called.

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I was in Michigan only long enough to see the first hint of fall color.

City life and building a career meant so much more to me at a young age. The irony of it is, as I got older, I spent an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to escape the city. But it wasn’t until I became a nature photographer that my connection to wilderness became poignantly purposeful and later, a significant reason for my RV travels. For the past 15 years, my canoe explorations of the Everglades and other south Florida waterways has been the driving force behind the photography. I spend days at a time paddling the canoe to remote hurricane-swept islands where I find the most beautiful waterscapes to capture. It’s nothing for me to go out in the canoe before sunrise and paddle through a wetland marsh, completely alone and surrounded by water and the wildlife it supports. The south Florida wilderness has been my home for a long time.

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Before we came here with the RV, I visited in late spring just in time to capture some wildflower color on the Jordan River.

Since Vivian and I started traveling and living fulltime in our RV this year, Michigan has been at the top of our list of travel destinations. As we planned our first RV trip, my thoughts went back to the beautiful Jordan River and how I might photograph it. While Vivian researched fly fishing opportunities, I researched photo opportunities.

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Chaotic and messy, such is nature in the wild.

After finding a small area to park, I got out and walked carefully down a steep grade through the dense forest that led to the Jordan River. I’ve been here before many decades ago, but back then the river was nothing more than a playground where I could jump logs and see how far I could get without falling into the water. This time, I took my time and carefully stepped over each log while I studied the terrain looking for pleasing compositions and good light. This could go on for a very long time, sometimes resulting in photos, other times not. But I was in no hurry and I could come back again on another day; after all, the RV was parked nearby in a campground for an entire month. I had the luxury of spending hours studying the river’s nuances. Indeed, we planned our RV trip so that we had quality time in one place to make the most of photographing and fishing.

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Come on fall colors, you can do it!

Finally satisfied that I had something worthwhile to photograph, I went back to the truck where I put on my waiters and boots and prepared my tripod and camera. Tripod on shoulder, I walked back to the water where a beautiful scene unfolded before me. As I placed the tripod legs firmly in the sandy bottom, I imagined I was back in Florida’s swamp, it looked and felt all so familiar. I was home again.

The River
The wild Jordan River.

Please check out my YouTube video on photographing the Jordan River.

Aug 1 A Place Where People Visit and Never Leave

A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving. “ Lao Tzu

For the past 15 years, Vivian and I spent almost every weekend and vacation day paddling our canoes through the Everglades. On occasion, we take trips lasting 8 to 10 days and paddle upwards of 20 miles from one campsite to another. Everglades National Park is a large and remote watery wilderness area and many campsites take several days to reach by kayak or canoe.

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One of the many campsites we paddle to during our Everglades trips.

We probably spend more time planning each trip than on the trip itself. Every planning decision is dictated by the king and queen of the Everglades, weather and tides. We study the tide charts, calculate mileage, consult the wind predictions and create contingency plans. Specific routes are carefully designed to minimize exposure to the typical winter wind patterns or the occasional storm that can make paddling difficult and sometimes dangerous.

Check out this short video of our Everglades trips.

And that is exactly how we approached our maiden voyage with the RV. Before we began our trip, I lost many nights of sleep thinking about how to back our rig into a tiny cramped campsite or how it could be pulled up and down very steep grades on narrow winding roads. When planning, I tried to avoid both these situations as much as possible. We poured over road atlases, consulted RV apps, read campground reviews, posted questions about road conditions on RV travel forums, studied the details of satellite images, and relentlessly hounded our experienced RV park neighbors with more questions. Consequently, I created a route from Chokoloskee, Florida to Indian River, Michigan (approximately 1800 miles) and made all our reservations to get us from point A to B. We were neatly booked for the next two months, just like paddling through the Everglades.

But here’s the thing – mother nature has a way of changing plans. This is not news, we all have been there. Our paddling trips have been altered or cut short occasionally. But we are now in an RV and covering much wider territory and exposing ourselves to weather patterns that are entirely new to us. According to our plan, we were to leave Lake Rousseau after three nights. As it were, we stayed two additional nights. Our second destination in the panhandle of Florida was flooded from relentless rains. We have found ourselves in the same kind of predicament in the Everglades. Faced with 25+ knot head winds across very large bodies of water, we make the executive decision to stay at a campsite instead of paddling onward. That’s the beauty of planning, it gives you the knowledge and confidence to make changes when necessary. True to form, we postponed our travels to the panhandle to wait the storm out. This gave us two additional nights at Lake Rousseau, where people come to visit and never leave.

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The boat launch at Lake Rousseau RV resort at sunset

I was beginning to get a creepy feeling from our camp host’s insistence on that fact, and I felt a hint of sadness not being where we originally planned to be. We could have left and arrived at our next reserved campsite on schedule, but why should we? Why should we drive in white-out conditions to get to a place where we would set up camp in torrential rain fall (assuming we could get into our campsite)? Why not wait until the storms clear out and then go? After all, we were thoroughly enjoying the purveyors of summer shade.

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Another view of sunrise over Lake Rousseau

That is the beauty of having our home everywhere we go. We plan our trips with fastidious attention to detail; but we know mother nature will always have the final say in the matter. And we are OK with that, because we will always be home.

FYI, here are the three resources we used the most to help us plan our trip:

Allstays Pro

Harvest Hosts

Passport America

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Staying five nights allowed me to capture some beautiful scenes of Lake Rousseau.

July 30 Purveyors of Summer Shade

Sometimes I think I’ve figured out some order in the universe, but then I find myself in Florida.” Susan Orlean

Lake Rousseau
Our first campsite. We requested a pull through and they put us right next to the entrance.

Five nights at Lake Rousseau RV Resort, the self-described Purveyors of winter warmth & summer shade, gave us quality time in the area; so, let me tell you a little about Florida and Lake Rousseau. In the RV park, there is a quaint marina on a small canal nestled between large trees dripping with Spanish moss. It provides access to the 3657-acre Lake Rousseau. Given the abundance of summer storms, the old wooden docks were covered in a slippery mix of freshly fallen rain water and algal slime. Various types of small fishing boats, a few with questionable sea worthiness and plenty of spider webs, barely disrupted the view of the sunrise over the lake. In the evening, the warm light of the setting sun bathed the large wall of tree canopies that lined the eastern side of the canal. The camp host made a point to remind us on a few occasions that this is where you come to visit and never leave. I can see why, it’s very inviting, especially while enjoying a chilled glass of white wine and watching the sun’s reflection disappear into the evening.

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A view from the RV resort’s marina, over looking a tree-lined canal.

Lake Rousseau is not a natural lake, it is a reservoir created from the damming of the Withlacoochee River over 100 years ago. It is living proof of the constant struggle between man’s desire to make Florida inhabitable and the very thing that makes us come here in the first place, the water. The Inglis Dam was initially built for the thriving phosphate mining industry; appropriately, the nearby town Dunnellon once had the distinction of being the “Phosphate Center of the World.”

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The Inglis Dam controls water from the Withlacoochee River.

Eventually, a lock was built on the dam for the proposed Cross Florida Barge Canal, a water route to connect the Gulf with the Atlantic and basically cutting Florida in half. Several times over the decades, construction was halted as quickly as it started as government funding came and went. At one point, construction moved along under the guise of national security. In the 1960s construction began again while environmentalism gained influence. Consequently, efforts to stop the canal led President Nixon to sign an executive order in 1971 that officially cancelled the canal project forever. Over time, land and water were turned over to the state and became the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, named after the woman who led the opposition to the canal.

Short Video: View a Sunset Over Lake Rousseau

Sunset View
Another view of sunrise over Lake Rousseau

Florida’s history is saturated with these kinds of tug-o-war politics. Florida is a land of convoluted power struggles between developers, big agriculture, the government, environmentalists and sportsmen, but there’s nothing more influential than mother nature herself. Lake Rousseau is a very popular fishing destination. Unfortunately, 11 months earlier Hurricane Irma caused the Withlacoochee River to flood. The waters became depleted of oxygen, killing 35,000 fish as estimated by Florida’s Wildlife Commission. During our visit, the local fishermen were beginning to see a comeback after seeing so many dead fish appear on the shoreline. A come back is inevitable, after all bass are prolific breeders and it only takes a few pair to repopulate the large lake, according to an FWC expert.

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Old Florida on Lake Rousseau.

Comebacks from storms are common occurrences here in Florida, I witnessed that firsthand several times, most recently on Chokoloskee Island following Irma’s destruction. Storms come and go, wildlife take a hit but somehow survive and people continue to flock to Florida. Shortly after leaving Lake Rousseau, I learned that it had become a blue-green algae site, one of many recently. Those prolific breeders making a comeback in the waters of lake Rousseau have yet another battle, this one largely due to the hand of man.

As the sun set over the lake, I steadied the tripod near the edge of the water to photograph a piece of old Florida where many come to visit and never leave. No matter who ends up winning; Big Sugar or Captains for Clean Water, Florida and Lake Rousseau will continue to exist, there will be many more photographs of beautiful sunsets and many more fishing boats on the water at sunrise. Florida is evidence that we want it all, we want our water, we want our fish, we want our natural beauty and we want our comfortable homes; preferably all in the same location.

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Capturing the sunrise on Lake Rousseau
Sky Colors
Nothing better than a colorful sky and its reflections on Florida waters.

 

You can see more of my Florida photographs at my website.